They said it couldn’t be done.
No less a genius than Leonardo da Vinci tried to design a workable airplane. He got as far as building a couple of gliders and apparently even soared off the roof of a barn for a few moments. Discouraged that he couldn’t do better, da Vinci wrote:
“When once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.”
But no matter how much he longed for it, da Vinci did not have the knowledge or the technology to build a working flying machine.
Neither did anybody else, for nearly 400 years. In fact, erudite and respected men of science were predicting as late as the early years of the 20th century that man would never fly. The distinguished American astronomer, Simon Newcomb, wrote in 1903:
“The mathematician of today admits that he can neither square the circle, duplicate the cube or trisect the angle. May not our mechanicians, in like manner, be ultimately forced to admit that aerial flight is one of the great class of problems with which man can never cope?”
Two months after Newcomb’s statement, the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk, N.C.
All this brings to mind Clarke’s First Law. Enunciated by Arthur C. Clarke, the great science-fiction writer, it reads:
“When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.”
Controlled fusion power is a case in point. For more than 50 years some of the world’s best physicists and engineers have been trying to build a fusion power plant. No joy, so far.
Fusion is a form of nuclear energy. Today’s nuclear power plants use nuclear fission to produce energy. In fission, the nuclei of heavy elements such as uranium or plutonium are split apart to release energy.
In nuclear fusion, the nuclei of the lightest element, hydrogen, are forced together to make helium nuclei. A smidgen of the hydrogen’s mass is transformed into energy, and the helium, which is an inert gas, can be given to children to blow up balloons. No radioactive waste.
We know fusion works, because it’s the process that makes the sun and stars shine. But making it work on Earth is a different story. After 50 years of toil, the best the scientists can offer is the hope of building an experimental fusion facility that just might break even, producing as much energy as it must be fed to operate.
Fusion researchers say that controlled thermonuclear fusion is just over the horizon — but the horizon is an imaginary line that keeps moving away as you approach it.
Some predict that we’ll never achieve a practical fusion power plant. I presume they fly in airplanes from time to time.
Gene therapy is another example. Half a century after biologists determined the structure of DNA and the molecular code that guides every living cell’s existence, pessimists are wondering if we will ever be able to use our knowledge of genetics to cure diseases.
Some early attempts to insert therapeutic genes in human patients have been outright failures. Patients have died. Yet the research goes on, despite doubts and setbacks.
Scientists at the Friedrich Miescher Institute for Biomedical Research in Basel, Switzerland, have used gene therapy to restore sight to blind laboratory mice. If this breakthrough works for humans, victims of retinitis pigmentosa, which is now an incurable genetic disease that causes blindness, will have their sight restored.
Retinitis pigmentosa destroys the rod and cone cells in the eye. The Swiss research team inserted into the lab mice a gene that directs the building of proteins that can rebuild the rod and cone cells. The once-blind mice reacted to light, and their optic nerves sent signals into the part of the brain that handles vision.
Those who said gene therapy won’t work are wrong. We are at the beginning of a new era of medical triumphs.
So the next time you see a distinguished but elderly scientist (and elderly, in this business, can mean anyone over 40) say that something is impossible, remember Clarke’s Law. He’s probably wrong.
Bova is the author of nearly 125 books, including “The Return,” his latest futuristic novel. Bova’s website address is www.benbova.com